A Dead Whale of a Tale

Hey guys, guess what? Yeah, it’s my turn to talk about this thing.

After playing Death Stranding on the PlayStation 4, I’m convinced that the gulf between American and Japanese cultures, as well as that between video games and movies, are still vast, and might not be crossed for several generations. I’m not sure if Hideo Kojima was trying to bridge those gaps in writing and designing this game, but if he was, I’m sorry to say that he failed.

The reason I’m sorry about that is because Death Stranding is an uncompromised venture. I can see that it was made with a sincere and unquestioned enthusiasm, but I think that a little questioning might have done it some good. I find its gameplay engrossing, but it’s not for everyone, and its cinematics and backstory — impressive though they are — are certainly not for most gaming audiences.

Death Stranding is a game about delivering things, not just hiking or walking as some folks like to complain. It’s about plotting routes, packing materials, and maintaining equipment (artificial and natural). It’s about setting up signs and services to facilitate trips for oneself as well as for others. It’s about making a plan and watching it come together. It’s also highly physical: balance and momentum are always at odds in this game, so one must consider each step carefully to avoid damaging tumbles.

What I’m saying is that Death Stranding is the sequel to Solar Jetman that I’ve been waiting for.

I’ve always loved games like Solar Jetman and The Oregon Trail, in which the details and decisions of travel actually matter. It bugs me when the challenges of roughing it are abstracted down to random monster encounters. I don’t want to just slide my characters around a world map; I want to experience it. I want to decide how to deal with a fallen tree, how to cross a rocky gorge, or how to scale a cliff. I want to see my characters heft themselves over logs, trudge through muddy fields, and fall over in the dirt. We’ve recently seen some rugged, outdoorsy adventures like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Red Dead Redemption II, and I think Death Stranding took a lot of inspiration from them. Still, Stranding, with its harsh, ghost-ridden world, leaves them far behind.

Death Stranding asks me to do all those things I talked about, from finding ways up mountains to finding ways around pirate camps. It gives me a big map, some basic tools, and a whole mountain of deliveries, and says, “Get to it.” It lets me explore, it lets me experiment. It lets me fall over, and then figure out the best way to avoid falling again. Some players jeer at this, saying that the protagonist’s flailing and flopping makes him look pathetic. I say, as I make Sam trundle across a barren, seemingly endless plain, bowed under hundreds of pounds of cargo, that feeling pathetic is part of the point. This game is as much about isolation as it is about delivering. It’s about trying to make a difference in an indifferent world.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing just isn’t all that popular. People don’t want to pretend that they’re small, or that they’re part of something greater than themselves. They want to feel powerful, important, better than what they already are. Of course, “better” is a subjective term, and only indicates what a person values, not the value of that person.

I admit that Death Stranding is simply not the sort of game that most gamers want to play, and I can’t say I blame them for their sniggering. This is a AAA, big-budget release, brought to us by the guy who made Metal Gear Solid, so expectations for the next big thing in action games were high. A ponderous meditation on loneliness and logistics was not what these people were looking for. I’d like to say that this was an intentional, large-scale joke committed by one of gaming’s best-known pranksters, but I’ve given up on analyzing Kojima’s motivations.

What I do know is that Hideo Kojima loves to spin stories. Big stories. Big, anime, sci-fi stories about world-ending catastrophes, the dangers of technology, and all manner of other social issues. He tends to be a little overzealous about it, though. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s the Ed Wood of video games, as he’s actually pretty damn talented, but I do fear that he shares some of Wood’s delusional verve.

You see, Kojima tries really, really hard to ape his favorite Hollywood movies, but oftentimes his efforts are misplaced. In Snatcher, one of his first games, there’s an early scene in which a character separates from his wife in a flying car. As the car ascends, the character says something, but the engine roar drowns it out. The wife says that she can’t hear him, but then he flies off, and we never know what was said. I take it that this was meant to be some sort of tearful parting, not unlike the Train-Station Goodbye of Since You Went Away, but this is not the last time the two characters ever see each other. In fact, since this scene occurs right at the beginning of the game, the two are bound to interact quite often. The mystery of the drowned-out line is never brought up again. It feels like Kojima just put it there to put it there. Without a fitting subtext, the drama falls on its face.

In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, a game Kojima made many years into his career, there’s a love scene between two awkward scientists. The man’s an anime nerd who’s falls in love with any pretty girl he sees, and the woman’s a treacherous reptile who injects people with grey goo. There’s so little to like about these characters that the tender, heartfelt music that plays as they surrender to ardor only made me shake my head. Later, the woman commits suicide, while her new lover, witnessing the act through a computer screen, bawls likes a baby. I’m not even a fan of Shakespeare, and I was embarrassed at this overblown attempt to emulate him.

To put it simply, Kojima is very much in love with being a director, although I don’t think he knows what being a director really means.

Sadly, this lesson continues to elude him in Death Stranding, whose delightful kernel of gameplay is surrounded by an absurd, Lynchian melodrama. Although I just spoke about the profound melancholy that I feel when playing this game, I can’t say that’s what was intended, because the tone is all over the place.

The apocalyptic setting for the game is lovingly crafted, but its explanation is so complicated that it employs a whole glossary of jargon. There’s some dark symbolism with frightening implications, but there’s also a whole lot of ham-fisted silliness about ropes, knots, and strands that gets tiresome quickly. There’s also that unique preoccupation with marine life that could only have sprung from a culture of islanders. It’s striking, but it feels out of place in a story that won’t stop reminding us of how American it is.

I’d say the biggest problem, though, is in the game’s characters. They’re all modeled after real actors (and comedians and film directors), and they look amazing. Seriously, Death Stranding in action makes even non-gamers turn their heads with its up-to-the-minute cast and presentation. But then these fabulously rendered beings start talking, and we find that they’re given names that sound like Mega Man villains, and dialogue worse than anything Anakin Skywalker ever said.

“It’s all the truth, except for the lies.”
“We run together…like Mario and Princess ‘Beach.'”
“Take the first step, Sam, and deliver the president’s body to the incinerator.”

They say these things with tremendous gravity, and I’m left wondering how I’m supposed to react. I suppose this is the fault of poor translation. For all I know, the original Japanese script could have sounded downright poetic. National differences, however, can’t explain the indulgent visuals. When you play this game, expect lots of long, lingering shots on Lea Seydoux’s pouty face and panty-model’s butt.

I’m sure there are a lot of apologists who’ll say that I’m not supposed to take Kojima’s games very seriously. In fact, the first song that plays in Death Stranding — and there are a lot of songs — is titled “Don’t Be So Serious.” That would fall in line with the idea that Kojima is really a master troll, but I suspect it’s more of a copout, and a coverup for the man’s wanting skill as a storyteller.

I can get past this, though, because I love playing the game so much. It’s gotten to the point where I’m even thinking about it when I’m at work, or getting out of bed in the morning. I keep thinking about how I want to thread my route so as to complete the most deliveries in one swoop. I keep thinking about how I need to truck some metals from the distro center so I can finally finish that highway I’ve been working on. I keep thinking about the new bola gun I just got, and which MULE outpost I should try it out at. I keep thinking about BB, and how difficult being a parent really must be. In these manifold regards, the game really has its hooks in me.

My concern is that most others won’t agree with me, and as a result, we may never see another Death Stranding again. It was too much risk for too many eye-rolls. The thing is: I respect the risks that Kojima took with this game. I like that he left his fingerprints all over it. Any creative person should look to this game and be inspired by it. To the end of my days, I will gladly argue that big-budget entertainment is in sore need of that wondrous, childlike love of creation that Kojima is in touch with, cringeworthy or not.

Jeff Bridges as The Dude

“Oh man, lodged WHERE?”

The Big Lebowski is not my favorite Coen brothers movie. I feel like many of its comic scenes miss their marks by miles. Combine that with irritating and unpleasant characters, like the pompous Maude Lebowski and the repulsive Jesus Quintana, and you have a movie that’s hard to take at times. Still, there are also many great comic scenes, and many lovable characters, not the least of which is the legend himself, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski.

The Dude is the only protagonist on this list of faves, and that’s because he’s the ultimate Coen everyman: easygoing, put-upon, and unimpressed. His friends? A gun-flashing vet and an empty-headed surfer. His enemies? A wheelchair-bound mogul and a pack of German nihilists. His acquaintances? A milquetoast landlord and a mysterious cowpoke called The Stranger. It’s crazy-ness, but that’s L.A., and these are the 90s. The counter-culture is dead, Vietnam forgotten, and deregulation all but embraced. The Dude’s a burned-out hippie in a sold-out city, living in a soulless time.

That’s okay, though, because like most of us, all The Dude wants is a smooth cocktail and a bowling lane. Oh, and a new rug, too.

The Dude’s mission to replace his urine-stained rug sends him from the ‘burbs of West Hollywood to the beaches of Malibu, encountering all manner of mixed nuts along the way. It’s notable that The Dude also happens into an eclectic symphony of music, one including lounge, hula, experimental vocalization, and techno-pop. Despite all this, though, The Dude never strays from home for long. At day’s close, he always comes shambling back to his buddies: Walter, Donny, Creedence, and Bob.

As The Stranger explains, it’s this simple constancy that turns The Dude into The Man For His Time and Place. Even as a parade of jackasses aims to make his life hell — his car and apartment are repeatedly ravaged until, by the end of the film, they’re unrecognizable — Duder chugs along, donning his sunglasses, shaking his head, and uttering a “Fuck it.” I suppose it’s also what makes his adventure such a huge cult favorite: nothing about The Dude’s life seems probable, and yet, we’ve all lived it.

Forget Love

Man, does the internet suck these days. Seems like you can’t go two clicks without running into some hideous argument about vaccinations, corrupt politicians, or Ariana Grande. Grown people everywhere, lured by the siren song of social media, have fallen prey to Early Internet Syndrome: because their words might be seen online, they immediately consider themselves to be superstars. As such, they feel compelled to establish, and defend, their identities in the way that a company does its brands.

What’s that? Keep a private journal? Shit, man, that’s for old people. Nowadays, if you’re not airing your laundry from the battlements of your Facebook stronghold, you’re just not a proper citizen, dammit. Never mind that nobody cares but the few relatives who friended you out of nervous obligation. They, too, must be crushed if they dare opine against you. Cucks! Cucks, the whole lot of ’em!

So, in these hateful times, it’s good to know that there’s a place where folks of all stripes can still gather under one banner…even if that banner bears the logo of a ubiquitous soft drink. I’m being totally serious here: if you’re tired of the childish angst that pervades the net, just do what I do, and make a search for “Pepsiman.” It’s not soda that this superhero distributes — it’s joy.

I’m normally quite vehement in my hatred of superheroes. I’ve always found this nation’s obsession with Batman to be disconcerting, and today’s Cinematic Universes to be empty, formulaic, over-budgeted cartoons. Pepsiman, however, is something else. A late-90s commercial star with silver skin, no face, and a horrifying mouth, he always came a-runnin’ to deliver refreshing cans of Pepsi to parched, sweaty Americans.

This is strange because Pepsiman was created by PepsiCo’s japanese ad department. His spots only ran in East Asia, so they came off as weird commentaries on invasive U.S. corporatism.

That’s okay, though, because as shameless spokespersons go, Pepsiman is easily the company’s most successful. Fuck Britney Spears; nobody buys into that head-tilting, eye-rolling, pop-star bullshit. But give us a klutzy delivery boy who only wants to make dumpy guys in baseball caps smile, and I’m sold. He even has an awesome theme song with a surf-rock bass-line.

Pepsiman became a minor sensation in his day, spawning merchandise that included action figures, bottle toppers, and even a (quite good) PlayStation game. No joke! Believe it or not, it’s an automatic runner that’s a precursor to Temple Run. It also has hilarious FMV that maintains the kooky, nigh-misanthropic nature of the commercials.

Now here’s the best part: even though Pepsiman is nearly twenty years old, the peculiar style of his campaign was so knowing that the meme-hungry netizens of today absolutely adore him. Remember that YouTube video I embedded a few paragraphs back? Its comments are nothing but positive. I can’t find a shred of hatred in it, not even from Coke-drinkers. There are people expressing cheer and amazement, comments of “2019,” and jokes building on jokes. But most of all, there are people celebrating their love of the one-time digestive cure that is Pepsi. It’s really quite astonishing.

Indeed, the public has embraced Pepsiman as the anti-spokesperson: a figure who, like Duffman of The Simpsons, not only raises awareness of his brand, but somehow derides it. I won’t go into what Pepsiman says about the corporation that oozed over an ocean to bring him to life; I think the commercials do that better than I ever could.

The point is that we mustn’t lose heart: cultural fixtures and icons can bring us together, but only if they avoid taking themselves so damn seriously. I’m sorry to say it, Miss Jenner, but love doesn’t really conquer all. Sometimes, in order to accomplish something, you have to work with people you hate. The best way to do that is find a shared experience that we can all laugh about. If it’s a dopey corporate symbol who pushes an inescapable, mediocre product on us, so be it. Love is hard to find, but humor is everywhere.

Zen in the Art of Horse-Shit

Well, there’s one consistent thing about Rockstar’s most recent games: they’re markedly inconsistent.

Red Dead Redemption II has at least three buttons for context-sensitive actions (there may be more that I can’t remember). You pick up provisions by holding the X/Square button. You pick up weapons by holding LB/L1. You mount horses and take people into choke-holds by pressing Y/Triangle.

That last, calculated choice of controller setup caused me a couple of social faux pas that quickly developed into long elusions from the police.

There are a wide variety of care-taking activities in the game. Some are quick and automatic, while others are slow and laborious. Order some fried catfish at the saloon, and your character gobbles it down in a jump cut. Take a bath at the same saloon, however, and you need to mash three buttons to make him scrub each of his extremities, one at a time.

You interact with people, camps, and horses through menus at the lower-right of the screen. For people, these menus include options for robbing, friendly greetings, or masculine taunts. For camps, you can choose to sleep, cook food or craft items, or just leave. You can give horses tender pats, brush dirt from their hides, or feed them various vegetables. To actually perform some of these actions, you need only tap a button. To perform others, you must hold a button until a ring around the button icon fills. For some actions, the options differ from occasion to occasion, so pressing Y/Triangle will make you sleep for eight hours one night, and it will make you sleep for fifteen hours on another.

The game’s story missions involve a lot of horse travel, usually in the company of your gangster buddies. Sometimes, in the course of these trips, the game will draw black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, meaning you can release the controller and just watch them talk and ride until they reach their destination. Other times, the game just keeps going, and you have to hold A/Cross and steer carefully while the characters talk and ride. If you don’t keep pace or follow the paths of your companions, they’ll yell and complain at you until you fall back in line. The game offers a “Cinematic Camera” for these situations, which helps keep your steed where it needs to be for the mission’s sake, but you still need to hold A/Cross for the duration of the ride.

The sum of this is that you simply cannot count on your character to do what you expect him to, without keeping vigil over the game’s prompts. The game involves a terrific amount of engagement and planning, in both the short and long terms. You can’t just gallop your horse through downtown Saint Denis, and then skid into the post in front of the barbershop. You might barrel over a pedestrian and wind up in jail over an assault charge. Besides, you need to position your horse just right, and then hold Y/Triangle for a couple of seconds to hitch it properly in the first place. No, no, you have to judge the road before you enter it, and then make your way along it with patience, just as you would in real city traffic. That is, of course, unless you don’t mind getting into a costly accident.

So, is all this just complaining? What do you think? The word “inconsistent” has a foul connotation, but I haven’t done anything other than describe the game’s details. When I began playing RDRII, I deemed its confusion as the mark of poor communication between a series of disparate design teams. Maybe that’s how it happened; I don’t know. Whether it was intentional or not, though, I find that I now appreciate it.

I rush through games nowadays. I was playing Skyrim a few days ago, when I felt exasperated at the repetitive combat, and the annoying characters who still gave me lip after I’d slain Alduin the World-Eater and saved their ungrateful butts. I asked myself just why in hell I was doing it. What, exactly, had compelled me to start the game up on that particular day? After some boiling, I got to the bones of my motivation, and discovered that I just wanted to get some of those god-damned entries off of my quest list.

When I manage my farm or explore a mine in Stardew Valley, I always fall into an efficient rut of behavior, always in pursuit of the most profitable wines, always seeking the next ladder to the unseen floors below.

Metroid games reward quick completion with images of Samus in varying degrees of nudity. People brag that they reached the final boss of Breath of the Wild within ten minutes of play. Online clubs devote themselves to speed-running. 

I understand that games are about goals, and that much of the joy of play is in building wise strategies to meet those goals. Of course you want a high score. Of course you want 100%-completion. Of course you want that rare achievement, so you find the quickest, most effective way to get it, and then you win. Right? I feel like I’m forgetting something.

What RDRII is telling me is to slow the hell down. Its makers worked pretty damn hard to construct its world, and though it’s little more than a weaving of smoke, so is most of real life. Do you want to rush through that, too, without taking a moment to, you know, experience the moment?

Arthur Morgan’s actions, even in the chaos of combat, are all very deliberate. He saunters. He slurs. He peeks into chests and drawers with a languid, I-got-all-the-time-the-world casualness. Sometimes he doesn’t even act when you tell him to. Not immediately, anyway. He just isn’t a hurried man. He certainly doesn’t have the crisp, stimulated motion of a Black Ops character, I’ll tell you that. Now, you can scream at the screen about it if you want to, but if you just relax and have a little faith, you’ll see. Arthur’ll get to it. Sure.

The fascinating truth is that the button menus in this game force you to think about what you’re doing right now, not about what you’re going to do a few seconds into the conceptual future. They force you into the moment. Arthur’s ponderous nature keeps you there.

This might sound peculiar, but when I hear the creaks of Arthur’s footsteps, or the rustle of his coat, or the jingling of his horse’s bridle, I think about the miracle of my own movement. How the heck do I do it, anyway? Where does the will to move come from?

I think about the minor motions of simple, daily activities, and about the ripples they send into the void. Opening the cabinet, pulling down the coffee mug, lifting the sink lever, seeing the mug fill with ripples, waves, and bubbles. Moving the mouse, opening the software, clacking the keys to make symbols that others will interpret. I do this everyday, altering and expressing into the pattern at large, and I don’t even know how it’s done. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that tremendous? Isn’t that worth stopping to wonder about?

RDRII is full of beautiful things to look at. The trees, the birds, the horses, the horizons — they’re all strikingly depicted. But isn’t the real world infinitely more beautiful than a mere simulation? Isn’t a twenty-minute drive to work just as lovely as a twenty-second, imaginary horse ride? Isn’t the idea of controlling a magnificent contraption with incremental, reflexive motions, just extraordinary?

Then, when you arrive at work, you enter into a sea of people united in the process of providing for themselves, and for the community. You are involved in a thoughtfully devised social structure where everyone makes a difference, no matter how small. Everything you say to your co-workers changes them, and everything they do changes you. Just like when you greet or antagonize those random pedestrians on the muddy streets of Valentine, you’re adding to the pattern, expressing the process. All you have to do is…well, take the time to do it, and then watch what happens. Isn’t that incredible? Isn’t that empowering? Isn’t that worth living for?

So maybe they fucked up. Maybe Rockstar screwed a whole litter of pooches and didn’t wind up with the perfect product that Nintendo or Blizzard would have made. Maybe a wide part of their audience won’t like it, and the game will get a lot of flak for it. I like it, though. My time with Red Dead Redemption II has been one of the most Zen experiences I can remember, and it’s been very good for me. When you try it out, I hope you’ll take a little time to enjoy it, too.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1971)

Here’s an animated adaptation that most folks aren’t aware of. I didn’t know about it until earlier this week. While considering the depictions of the supernatural in “Carol” adaptations, I found it curious that no animated special attempted to design the Ghost of Christmas Past as Charles Dickens devised it. Perhaps the animators felt beneath the challenge:

“It was a strange figure — like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white, and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.

Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.”

I decided to search through the multitude of “Carol” cartoons to see if any of them got it right. Well, it turns out that one did, and wouldn’t you know it? It was made by Richard Williams, the same man who would go on to direct the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

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This adaptation, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1971, dares to illustrate Dickens’ story in a realistic style, which makes the supernatural elements all the more frightening. Just as Dickens wrote, Williams’s Christmas Past shifts shape and appearance, and leaves an eerie trail of afterimages in its wake. It moves and speaks in a flat, distant manner, and the effect is as disturbing as it is beautiful.

Oh, and speaking of disturbing:

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The contrast between the realistic living characters and the freakish specters works greatly to the cartoon’s benefit. It reminds me of the old John Hurt “Storyteller” programs that Jim Henson produced in the 1990s. Seeing the man behind the Muppets spin tales about death, devils and dragons created a thrill in me. I thrilled for a future in which genius creators such as Henson could graduate from children’s fairytales and tackle dark, grandiose epics. It never came to be, but it was nice to wonder at.

Williams’s “Carol” is born of that same desire, I believe, to pull the general view of cartoons away from the safe sweetness of Walt Disney. Indeed, this cartoon feels more like a the work of artists who wanted to experiment, to follow their own minds, to make something unfettered by stifling market-think. I daresay that the final result suffers a bit for this:  the cartoon is prone to navel-gazing, and even the most powerful moments from the book are made limp by the lingering direction.

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This is not a Top Cartoon, but I still think it’s worth your time. It is a marvelous, moving art exhibit made by folks who live to share their imaginations. It will show you things that you’ve never seen before, so I pray you won’t miss out.

Gently Down the….

Making cartoons takes a long time. I’d like to keep in touch with my fans somehow. I’m thinking of making some YouTube videos of the production process, but I was also thinking of something else.

Lately I’ve been pouring an hour or two into playing PC games each night, including Diablo III, The Sims 4, and Grand Theft Auto V. Why not use that time to record a Twitch stream? Of course, I’ll talk about the game, but I also think it’d be a good forum for discussion of other topics, such as art, animation, movies, game design, writing, etc.

I’ll be sure to notify you beforehand. I hope to see some of you! Of course, the channel name will be “lisvender.” Now I just have to find a convenient time to do the recording. Hope to see you online!